Wouldn’t the Irish senior look more comfortable anchoring stout Irish defenses of the past? Can’t you imagine Smith knocking heads with former opposing RBs such as Pittsburgh’s Craig Heyward, Michigan State’s Lorenzo White, and Michigan’s Tyrone Wheatley? Would Smith be a revered 4-3 middle linebacker, considered an essential inside cog as were his predecessors Don Grimm and Pete Bercich? Or would he be a candidate for team captain and leading tackler in the mold of Lyron Cobbins?
Unfortunately for Smith, this isn’t 1986 or 1996. Its 2009, the era of the spread offense, empty backfields, and five eligible receivers that happen to run fast better than anything else they do on this earth.
And for the better part of three years in the program, Smith has been an afterthought on what has been a sub par run defense. His purported toughness and hitting ability rendered inconsequential by his lack of speed and quickness. He couldn’t beat out solid but unspectacular Joe Brockington for a starting role on the worn down 2007 defense. He was passed on the depth chart by a younger, faster LB with a penchant for the big play and a shared surname in the spring of 2008. And if not for an injury to the aforementioned Brian Smith vs. Navy in mid-November last year, there’s a good chance Toryan Smith would be buried on the post-Spring depth chart of 2009 as well.
In his brief (barely 2.5 games) audition at the end of last season, T-Smith showed he can compete at the college level, especially vs. the run, and has thus been afforded a second chance in his senior year. That unexpected development might be a blessing for the ’09 Irish defense. Because of Smith’s improved play in the middle, Brian Smith was moved back outside to his natural weak side linebacker role. The junior playmaker will have a chance to thrive playing in space while Toryan will gladly perform the heavy lifting role of the mike ‘backer: bruising through the traffic and carnage near the line of scrimmage.
If Smith has finally put the bad angles and missed opportunities of the past behind him he can begin to focus on a new goal: holding off ND’s football future. Nipping at his heels in the middle are redshirt freshman David Posluszny and, most likely, incoming freshman prodigy Manti T’eo (you might have heard of him). Both can run. Both can thrive vs. today's multiple offensive attacks, and both have the football athleticism to unseat Smith after his first misstep.
The wealth of talent behind Smith makes it difficult to forecast the senior as anything but a short-yardage LB as the season progresses. The key to his ’09 playing time will likely be A.) How he holds up vs. a full slate of starting LB candidates in August, and B.) If he can prove his value as a first down middle linebacker vs. teams that don’t employ the spread as their base offense. In the end, I think Irish fans will thank Smith for a few crucial plays in goal line and short-yardage situations, but an influx of youth and speed will win out over the course of the season. If Smith is forced into a part-time role as a senior he has to make the most of this opportunity. After all, stopping running backs just short of the end zone isn’t a bad niche to embrace.
Smith’s Best Moments of 2009:
- Scooping up a blocked punt and returning it for a 14-yard TD vs. Navy.
- Filling-in for injured MLB Brian Smith for three-plus quarter vs. the Midshipmen, and pacing the Irish with seven solos and three assists.
- Recovering a fumble vs. Syracuse that led to an Irish FG and a 23-10 advantage.
Smith’s Moments to Forget in 2009:
- Earning a personal foul for excessive celebration after his first relevant play in an Irish uniform (the TD vs. Navy).
- Anchoring an Irish front seven that allowed 170 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries in the home finale loss to Syracuse.
- Being shown the scoreboard by USC RB Joe McKnight on national television (it read 24-0) after a few moments of ill-advised trash talk…then getting buried at the point of attack on a touchdown run three plays later.